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Fined for Fixing a Problem: Council Considers Gravel Alleys

To improve their quality of life, John Roche and his neighbors laid gravel in the alley behind their homes. Instead of praise, they received code compliance violations from the city. Last Wednesday City Council reviewed its options for fixing alleys.

John Roche lives near Florence Street south of Imperial Beach Boulevard, and was tired of dealing with the alley behind his house.

"We would have dust in our bedroom on the second floor. I mean there would be dust all over the place" he said

Deep potholes and stagnant water were also problems, he said.

"In winter when it rains it's there for two weeks in these big puddles. It's crazy," Roche said.

In October 2011, using $900 collected $50 a piece from property owners and renters alike, Roche and his neighbors came together to spread out the gravel across the 600-foot alley and rent equipment. The task finished under budget, and when they were done, each neighbor received $15 to $20 back.

With the gravel in his alley, both potholes and dust have greatly improved. It isn't perfect he said, but the fill has alleviated 80 percent of the problem.

But since gravel does not meet design standards accepted by current city law, a few weeks after gravel was laid, Roche received a notice of violation from the city which could result in misdemeanor criminal charges and a $1,000 fine.

Roche applied for a permit for the project which was denied, but said he believes a member of city staff told him they may look the other way if the work was done on a weekend.

"I wouldn't do anything illegal, but the only reason I did it was because I was given a nod nod wink wink," he said.

City Manager Gary Brown said staff gave no such indication, and that any violations will be suspended until the city decides what to do.

In February he appeared before City Council to contest the violation and possible legal action. He appeared again last Wednesday to discuss seven options council considered.

The city's options are limited to what city staff presented last Wednesday, Mayor Janney told Roche.

"You're before us as you were once before, we have these legal issues on it, and we cannot bless something as of which you've put in there. That's our problem," he said. "Legally we can't. I mean maybe we would like to or something like that, but we just can't do that."

Current standards require that any individual property owner or developer who wants to make improvements to an alley apply for a permit and must pave with concrete or asphault to the nearest street.

Options ranged from sticking with the status quo to allowing property owners to form their own alley improvement assessment districts, which are special zones to pay for improvements.

The city has had successful alley improvement assessment districts in the past, but a plan to pave all 51 of IB's unpaved or deteriorated asphault alleys failed in 2006.

Proposition 218 requires that a majority of voters approve any increase in taxes or assessments. The vote narrowly failed, with 49.9 percent of residents in favor of the creation of two districts.

Another district near Elm Avenue and South Bay Union School District offices failed by a larger margin.

In 2006 the city's redevelopment agency was ready to invest $700,000 to cover initial costs.

At the end of the discussion that took more than an hour last Wednesday, staff was instructed to come back at a future meeting with options for residents or property owners to lay gravel in alleys around IB, otherwise known as Option F.

Ed Soros lives at the end of 9th Street near Bayside Elementary School.

"The garage opens on to the alley, but I only drive down it when I have to," he said after the meeting, adding that potholes more than 10 inches deep is the biggest issue where he lives.

Roche's alley isn't the only one where property owners have decided to lay down gravel, Soros said. He dumps gravel in his alley on occassion as well, and in his experience, alleys he has seen use gravel "have held up just marvelously," he told council last week.

"I would love to put anything behind my house. I've lived in a lot of houses in my life, and sadly, this is the dirtiest I've ever lived in. Next to the school ground and next to the dirt alley. And it's just dusty," he said.

Before the city made any effort to form districts in 2006, the retired 77-year-old went door-to-door in the early 2000s to try and form a private assessment district.

That initiative failed in part, he said, due to bloated cost estimates from the city and other issues.

"It turned into a big boondoggle and it really made a lot of people mad," he said.

"I love this little town," said Soros who has lived in IB for more than 40 years, but he doesn't enjoy dealing with bureaucratic barriers.

In the past the former Marine was especially upset with the process when he said he had to fight to install a flag pole to fly the American flag, and now as he works to expands his home.

He's concerned that whatever option the city puts forward may be over engineered. Like an elephant made up of 1,000 mice, contribution from various city staff and agencies outside of IB could make a standard that makes fixing alleys more difficult than it needs to be.

"It's not rocket science," he said. "You get it out there, grade it down, get four or five guys with shovels and lay it out."

Due to current economic conditions, Soros believes the idea of sending an assessment district back to voters may again fail to receive a majority vote.

Mayor Janney said originally he wanted to see assessment districts sent back to voters, but agreed with Soros' assessment, and believes Option F may be the only way to move forward.

"It's the only thing that we can put out there that gives people the opportunity to help their backyard or back alleys," he said.

Any options approved by council would need to meet standards for storm water and water quality set by regulatory authorities, City Manager Gary Brown said.

Staff said if Option F is adopted, renters and property owners will be responsible for improvements and maintaining alleys. Initial estimates found that thousands of dollars may be neeeded for design, grading and to lay down gravel.

Roche likes the idea that the city may be moving toward a standard that allows residents to use gravel in alleys, but thinks if the solution talked about Wednesday are adopted, money would still be an issue.

"I mean we're little tiny people here," he said. "It was hard to raise $50 from people."

Collecting thousands of dollars to complete the task doesn't seem probable, he said.

"There's no way it would have happened at that price," he said

Shorebird June 13, 2012 at 06:49 PM
Did anyone see the situation reported on the channel 10 news last night?
Angie June 14, 2012 at 03:53 AM
Really? Our neighbors are trying to improve/beautify our neighborhood/alley and they get fined? Let's fine our neighbors that dump their crap in the alley!
Curmudgeon June 14, 2012 at 04:19 AM
I saw the News10 story last night, and according to that Roche brought in tractors and graded the alley as well as dumping the gravel the entire block. First... I think Roche is a great neighbor and should be complimented and I am confident he will not face any fines, ect. However... come on folks... we really can't have individuals driving tractors around. As admirable as it is, what if someone's pet, child or property was killed or destroyed? Of course the city can't be in a position of endorsing this kind of activity. Sorrell's is right... throwing some gravel and raking it out (while not as effective) is probably historically okay... but this is something the city can't endorse and it is unfair to criticize on this one. There are too many wild accusations (Libi) that do no good... The world is not out to get you. This will all work out, and if Roche has to pay a fine, everyone can chip in to pay for that too. But he won't, so save your money.
Mark June 14, 2012 at 07:42 PM
There is nothing wrong with putting gravel on the ground in an alley. It is an affordable improvement that one can make to his or her property. This may not be high class paving, however one should agree, it is an improvement. At some point in the future, when the city gets out of the way, citizens will be free to make improvements. I commend Roche and his neighbors for getting together and working together. Besides, NO harm came in doing this. The city has the ability to turn its head on this and should.
Kelly Tracy June 15, 2012 at 02:59 PM
Yes I agree Mark Two Thumbs Up for John and his neighbors coming together with a practical solution. They are only trying to address a heath, safety and quality of there alley, no harm done. If our city cant afford to pave the alley and citizens are willing to come up with and implement a temporary solution than good for them.

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